Harvard Finds New Partner in City Hall's "Urban Mechanics"

Harvard Crimson
November 7, 2014
By Ivan Levingston

Over the last ten years, Harvard has made headlines with a bold plan to build a massive engineering complex in Allston, but it has also been working—quietly and methodically—to lay a different type of infrastructure across the river. This initiative focuses on behind-the-scenes collaboration rather than press conferences, and on developing apps rather than developing property.

Founded by graduates from the Business School, the Boston Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics is a newly minted city department that aims to transform the way city services are delivered, using principles of entrepreneurial innovation and collaboration formulated with the help of HBS faculty.

Over its five-year history, the office has partnered with other universities around the Boston area, though it has always maintained a particularly close relationship with Harvard, partnering with the University and leveraging its vast academic resources.

From research and teaching partnerships to smartphone apps and projects analyzing how to improve city services, city officials and Harvard faculty say, the New Urban Mechanics are redefining what civic innovation means in the 21st century.

“People see New Urban Mechanics and working for the city of Boston in general as one way they can change the world,” the office's co-chair Christopher P. Osgood said.

FROM HBS TO CITY HALL

Former Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who was himself nicknamed the “Urban Mechanic,” created the Office of New Urban Mechanics in 2010 with an eye toward embracing technology to find ways of improving city services for the 21st century.

The Office now works to build “partnerships between internal agencies and outside entrepreneurs to pilot projects that address resident needs,” according to its website. It has focused its work on areas such as education, city infrastructure, and improved constituent services.

New Urban Mechanics has been tied to Harvard since its conception. Though the Office was not founded until 2010, the phrase “New Urban Mechanics” was first coined in 2005 by Mitchell B. Weiss ’99, a Harvard Business School lecturer, who was then a student at HBS, working as a fellow in the Mayor’s Office.

Weiss later oversaw the launch of the office while he was serving as chief of staff for Menino.

Now a senior lecturer at HBS, he credits many faculty members with providing mentoring and insights on everything from the organization of the office, to open innovation and open government.

“HBS made it possible for us to be there in the Mayor’s Office in the first place...but HBS also trained us to do something there to make a difference in the world,” Weiss said. “The way we decided to make a difference was to invent.”

Osgood, a fellow Business School alum, agreed that the school taught him to apply business strategies to public sector work, while connecting him to a network of colleagues who graduated from the Business School and still work in Boston City Hall.

“HBS does a very good job of helping students understand how organizations should be best structured to deliver value for their customers or constituents,” Osgood said. “It’s something that we think a lot about in our work which is really understanding what customer needs are or constituent needs are.”

‘URBAN MECHANICS’

Since 2010, the program has worked to launch several initiatives aimed at streamlining traditional city services.

One of its innovations is an iPhone app called “Street Bump,” which uses data from car trips to identify potholes. “Adopt-A-Hydrant” is another. The mobile application allows citizens to adopt a fire hydrant to shovel out after snowfall. The office has also launched “Discover BPS,” a web app modeled on the platform for travel websites like KAYAK or Orbitz. It helps parents better compare public school options available for their children.

The projects share in the broader philosophy embraced by the office: that ideas of entrepreneurship and innovation can be applied to tangibly improve city services.

“New Urban Mechanics is about the power of innovative partnerships inside government and outside government,” said Weiss.

‘A NOVEL PARTNERSHIP’

As New Urban Mechanics designs and launches new technologies to streamline city services, Harvard has continued to offer guidance and support to its staff.

Susan Crawford, currently a visiting professor at the Law School, has collaborated with the Office of New Urban Mechanics on a number of projects. In 2012, as a visiting professor at the Kennedy School, she taught a course at Harvard’s Innovation Lab called “Solving Problems Using Technology.” Students worked alongside staff from New Urban Mechanics to brainstorm ways to promote cultural activities around Dudley in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, and to encourage local children to become involved in the neighborhood association.

“It was an extremely creative course and very constructive both for the students and the neighborhood,” Crawford said. “It changed the lives of several students who’ve gone on to have jobs [in this field].”

Crawford hasn’t stopped there. As a visiting professor at the Law School, she collaborated with the program on projects that connect Harvard Law students with the City of Boston to examine policy issues like the potential for video surveillance by drones.

“These are big pieces of policy...what the students do becomes part of the resources that the city is drawing on,” Crawford said. “What all of us are trying to do is build the pipeline of people who see serving in government as part of their careers.”

Other Harvard affiliates have contributed academic literature to the project. Daniel T. O’Brien—the research director of the Boston Area Research Initiative at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, whose mission is to “foster original urban research in age of digital data”—has collaborated with the New Urban Mechanics to produce several papers, including one on how residents use Boston’s City Service Hotline.

Business School professor Michael I. Norton has also partnered with New Urban Mechanics when conducting research. He has worked with the office to find a better way to display city services, including a streamlined new website that lets constituents see how the city spends its money. He is also working on a tool that would track how and where tax dollars are spent, along the lines of Domino’s online pizza tracker. The interface, Norton said, should help improve transparency and educate citizens about city budgets.

The Office’s emphasis on public-private collaboration and innovation, some say, has made academics more willing to partner with the office.

“Government agencies aren’t always known for flexibility or open-mindedness,” Norton said, noting that he has found New Urban Mechanics to be the opposite.

Harvard has long funneled Business School fellows to public service positions around Boston, and as the New Urban Mechanics expands its presence, it has received a steady flow of students and alums both from the fellowship program at the Business School and the Rappaport and Radcliffe Institutes.

Some Harvard affiliates noted that the focus on public service, which leverages innovative new solutions to address civic problems, reflects a broader goal embraced by the Harvard community.

Neal Doyle, an assistant director at Harvard’s Innovation Lab,  which has partnered with the Office, calls it “direction from the top.”

“This is a neat opportunity to really see Harvard take its great resources and training and study and turn it into practice,” he said.

Weiss said he expects the relationship between the University and the program to continue developing.

“It’s been a very innovative and novel partnership,” Weiss said. “It will continue to iterate and improve as we would expect from a good entrepreneurial endeavor.”

—Staff writer Ivan B. K. Levingston can be reached at Ivan.Levingston@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @IvanLevingston.

Search Year: 
2014